Luke Epplin’s writing has appeared online in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ and Slate, among others, but the Litchfield High School grad’s latest project was a whole new beast when it came to Epplin’s literary career.
After five years of researching, writing and revising, Epplin’s first book, Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball, goes on sale. The book, which chronicles the stories of Larry Doby, Bill Veeck, Satchel Paige and Bob Feller leading up to the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 World Series win, has already received praise from NPR, Publisher’s Weekly and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
It was the number one selling baseball book on Amazon as of March 28.
Part of the draw of Our Team comes from the timing of Epplin’s book, which tells a lesser known story of integration in the baseball world, that of Doby, who was the first black baseball player in the American League and the second overall behind Jackie Robinson, whose story is rightfully celebrated. With social justice issues taking center stage in many sports today, the story of Doby and those surrounding him shows readers just what the seven-time all-star had to go through and serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made during this time.
“I’ve read and I know a lot about Jackie Robinson. His story is exciting and it deserves all the recognition it has. It’s incredible,” said Epplin who now lives in New York City. “But I didn’t know anything about Larry Doby or the Cleveland Indians and they integrated 11 weeks after the Dodgers integrated with Jackie Robinson. The thing that I found exciting is that this story is every bit as epic and thrilling and exciting and meaningful as Robinson’s story.”
Our Team is as much of a baseball book as The Wizard of Oz is a story about weather patterns in the Great Plains. Baseball is the backdrop and the thing that gathers Doby, Paige, Veeck and Feller together, but the stories behind the journey that brought those men together is what the book is really about.
“I think the characters very interestingly resonate off of one another. I think that they each represent a different facet of the integration experience,” Epplin said.
Doby’s signing by Veeck, the charismatic and somewhat controversial owner of the Indians, is as much about dollars as it is about social justice. The legendary showman who brought exploding scoreboards, fireworks and entertainment into the game of baseball was forward thinking in regards to race relations, but he also realized that a quicker way to improve on the Indians’ win percentage was to tap into the thus far ignored Negro Leagues.
Feller, the prototypical All-American boy when he came to Cleveland as a teenager, set the template for athletes as businesspeople, becoming the first player to ever incorporate his name when he launched a barnstorming tour of the United States against a team of all-stars from the Negro Leagues. Epplin says that Feller’s opinions on integrating the Major Leagues are complex and have to do more with his traditional values than beliefs on race.
“I don’t think he was a racist at all, because he was out there competing against black pitchers during the barnstorming times,” said Epplin, noting that other players refused to play against the Negro Leaguers. “I think he just had this American notion that if you’re talented enough and work hard enough, you’ll be able to overcome boundaries. He’s not thinking about how race, at that time in particular, didn’t allow that.”
With Paige, Epplin sees a kindred spirit of sorts with Feller, not just in their immense baseball talent, but in their business acumen as well. At a time where money was scarce for black ball players, Paige was making more than most Major Leaguers through the barnstorming circuit.
Epplin said that Paige also had different ideas on integration than Doby, who was almost 20 years Paige’s junior.
“Doby and Paige didn’t really like each other. They came from different generations and had different ideas about integration and how to approach the topic,” Epplin said.
Mixed together, the combination of the four larger than life personalities, a city (Cleveland) experiencing some of its greatest growth and a country searching for a sense of normalcy after World War II, the story was one yearning to be told.
“I was thinking about writing something about Bill Veeck and the St. Louis Browns because I thought that would be an interesting thing, to write about a franchise that no longer exists,” Epplin said. “But then I saw all of these other characters that were around Veeck earlier in the 1940s with the Cleveland Indians. You’ve got this great mix of people and had all of these themes you could explore through these four characters.”
While the roots of the book come from an interest in Veeck and the Browns, Epplin’s interest in baseball can be directly traced back to growing up in Litchfield.
“My dad is probably the biggest baseball fan I’ve ever met in my life,” said Epplin, whose parents, Jerome and Renee, still live in Litchfield. “He’s had season tickets to the St. Louis Cardinals for as long as I can remember and I grew up going to games with him. He carried a radio around with him throughout my childhood, just listening to Cardinals games as much as he could.”
Epplin said that he considered writing about his beloved Cardinals, but in the end, the story he was most drawn to was that of the Indians.
And with that story in the books (literally), Epplin moves on to his next venture… eventually.
“I have a few other ideas, but I’m going to be honest, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “This took me five years to figure out and it took a lot out of me so I’m kind of taking a break right now. Once I get vaccinated and can get back in the library, hopefully I’ll find a new subject, but honestly right now I don’t have one.”
In the meantime, he hopes that people enjoy the fruits of his labor and learn more about a special time, when baseball changed forever.
“I really just hope they’ll be entertained by it and that the narrative and story is good,” he said of what he hopes readers will get from Our Team. “I hope that this is a good gateway into that story for people like me, who didn’t know much about it. I hope I told it in an entertaining enough way that people will read about it and say that this is really exciting.”
Our Team can be preordered online at us.macmillan.com and other book sellers.